Moments after posing for the cover shot, Tyrod Taylor walked down the sideline inside the Buffalo Bills’ fieldhouse and offered a rare, fleeting look inside his psyche.
The quarterback was days away from his first NFL start.
“I want to be the best,” Taylor said then. “When I step on the field, I want people to say, ‘Oh man, that kid is special.’”
Then, the great mystery was finally revealed. Through eight wins and six losses, Taylor completed 63.7 percent of his passes for 3,035 yards, 20 touchdowns, six picks with 568 rushing yards and four scores. There were moments of brilliance and “Hotline Bling” celebrations. There were stretches of three-and-out frustration.
Now, the Bills are faced with a great question: Is Tyrod Taylor their franchise quarterback?
General Manager Doug Whaley isn’t ready to commit top dollar to Taylor. Not yet. He made it clear the Bills will wait.
At some point, however, the Bills must make a franchise-altering decision at the most important position in sports — the position that gets people hired and fired. Pay up for Taylor and this team either accelerates toward contention or slips back into dormancy.
Look at the NFL teams still playing. All eight quarterbacks remaining were either No. 1 overall picks or already own Super Bowl rings. You need playmakers, not caretakers.
So we turn to the experts.
This past week, The Buffalo News caught up with six of the sharpest minds in the game, six who know the position best. They’re excited with what they saw in Year One. Yet that excitement is often traced with hesitation, with caution.
Some see a long-term answer. Some must see more.
Here’s the panel…
Rich Gannon: Four-time Pro Bowler, 2002 MVP threw for 28,743 yards and 180 touchdowns in his career. Now a CBS commentator, he studied film on Taylor throughout the season and called three games.
Warren Moon: Pro Football Hall of Famer made nine Pro Bowls and won the MVP award in 1990, throwing for 49,325 yards and 144 touchdowns in his career. Moon connected with Taylor when the QB first made the jump to the NFL and the two have stayed in touch since.
Mark Brunell: Like Taylor, Brunell played at 6-foot-1 and was a low-round draft pick. Like Taylor, he waited multiple years as a back-up. Now an ESPN analyst, he reached three Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl as a back-up in 2009 and totaled 32,072 passing yards, 2,421 rushing yards and 199 touchdowns in his career.
Brian Billick: The Super Bowl XXXV winner went 85-67 (.559) as the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens and served as the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive coordinator for five years before that. He now serves as an analyst for NFL Network.
Kevin Gilbride: Former New York Giants and Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator. Won two Super Bowls with the Giants — beating Bill Belichick twice — as the driving force in Eli Manning’s development.
Eric Wood: Bills center has played with eight starting quarterbacks in his seven seasons and saw Taylor on a day-to-day basis here in Western New York.
After four years as Joe Flacco’s back-up in Baltimore, Taylor finally got his shot in Buffalo. He’s not the traditional drop-back passer. This 6-foot-1, 215-pounder with 4.5 speed doesn’t fit a cookie-cutter mold.
Brunell: “I’m impressed. First of all, it’s my understanding he’s a worker. It’s important to him. He’s good in the locker room. He makes good decisions. He’s athletic. Smart. He made some big-time throws. If I’m Rex Ryan, I’m excited about this young man.”
Billick: “It’s the classic question: Is he an athlete who can throw or a quarterback who can run? Right now, based on what they’ve asked him to do, he’s an athlete who can throw.”
Gannon: “You can tell he’s an intelligent player. He can handle a lot of volume. He can handle a check-with-me system at the line of scrimmage. That’s a lot to build on there. Now, that being said this is a performance-based business and they didn’t make the playoffs again.”
Wood: “He has a tremendous skill-set. He throws a great ball. He’s fast. He’s athletic. He has it all. He’s extremely poised. The moment wasn’t too big for him in his opening start and through crunch time he just stays even-keeled the whole time which is a great quality in a quarterback.”
Gilbride: “He’s an extraordinary athlete with remarkable quickness. He had a high completion percentage but I thought that was a little misleading. It looked like a lot of it was off scrambles, late deliveries, that type of thing. He had a ways (to go) to prove to me that he’s going to be a successful passer in this league.”
Billick: “One of the hardest things to do is to separate your evaluation of a quarterback from what’s going on around him. But if you’re going to dub a guy the franchise guy — and say ‘OK, we are now one of those teams that have our quarterback’ — if he is than you’re lucky because only half of the teams in the league can say that … if that. He’s got to be a guy who, when you have to throw it 35-40 times, he can win for you that way. So that’s the remaining hurdle I see for Taylor.”
Gannon: “You’re not talking about a guy who threw 18 or 19 interceptions in his first year. That’s something to celebrate. With ball security, you can see that’s important to him. He understands it. We’re so quick to label guys. I don’t think his story has been written but I think there are some really encouraging signs.”
Moon: “I like his demeanor. He doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too low out there. He’s always cool, calm and collected, which you want a quarterback to be. He reminds me a lot like Russell Wilson that way. He doesn’t let things really affect him that much.”
The Russell Wilson trajectory
That name — “Russell Wilson” — comes up often in conversation. That’s the upside here. Both quarterbacks are shorter, both are exceptional athletes. Overlooked out of college, Wilson has matured into one of the NFL’s better quarterbacks, one who signed a five-year, $89 million contract and then willed Seattle back to the playoffs with his arm after back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.
Taylor flashed Wilson-like glimpses. But will those glimpses become the game-in, game-out norm?
Gannon: “His escapability, his maneuverability, explosiveness, speed and quickness is a little bit like Russell Wilson. He’s not built like Russell. I don’t think he throws the ball quite as well as Russell at this point but that’s the type of player that — if you’re looking for a guy with similar characteristics — it would be somebody like that. If I was working with Tyrod, that’s some film I’d get to look at.”
Billick: “People will make that comparison because of the athleticism. Russell Wilson has taken the next step and proven he can beat you from the quarterback position. He can beat you from the pocket. Tyrod has that next step to make. He looks good from the pocket. He does some things. But can he exclusively beat you from the pocket in a 35-40 throw game?”
Gannon: “I don’t think people understand how strong Russell is. He has really strong legs, a really strong core. When you look at his build, he’s got some shoulders and arms to him. He’s put together. He really trains and works hard. Now, I don’t know what type of workout program Tyrod’s done in the past. But that’s an area he can work on — functional strength.”
Brunell: “Coaches have tried to stop Cam (Newton) and stop Russell and they have yet to be able to do that as well. There’s something to be said about a kid who can throw from the pocket and still has the ability to get out. Those guys, they’re rare. And to have a good young one who can get better? That’s a special thing. The Bills are in good hands.”
Billick: “When you look at Steve Young’s numbers in ’94, when they won the championship, it’s amazingly similar (to Wilson) … And we’re talking about a Hall of Fame quarterback. But he was in a position this year where he had to do more of that, did it, stepped up to the challenge, learned from it and went forward. So that’s the next step for Tyrod Taylor, to be that guy.”
Moon: “Russell doesn’t throw the ball down the middle of the field much either. You have to find throwing lanes as opposed to throwing over people. And sometimes you have to take a deeper drop — like Drew Brees does. It’s an adjustment period because there are some negatives in not being tall. But there’s also some positives because you’re able to use your legs. So you kind of balance the two out. I think that’s what Russell has been able to do — what he doesn’t have in height, he makes up for in mobility and his creativeness. Tyrod has to find that right balance.”
Gilbride: “Right away, you could see Russell was a different guy. He’s special. He works at it like the other great ones do. He’s not slacking off. He’s putting in time like the Bradys, the Manning boys, the Drew Breeses. I don’t know anything about Tyrod Taylor (his work ethic), the thing about Russell Wilson is he wants to be the great quarterback. So he knew the part of the game he had to get better at was in the pocket.”
Can he excel from the pocket?
Taylor ranked seventh in passer rating (99.4). He can run. He can throw it deep to Sammy Watkins. But Taylor rarely risked throws over the middle. Buffalo’s passing game was not dependent on timing-based throws. Whaley has cited defenses using spies in the middle of the field and taking away the “easier” throws, but he’ll surely want to see Taylor make strides here before committing long term.
Is this something a quarterback either has or doesn’t have? Or can Taylor develop this skill?
Brunell: “That can be developed — without a doubt. And that’s time on task. That’s just working. That’s in the film room, on the field with your receivers. That can certainly be developed and he’ll get better at that.”
Gilbride: “It depends. When you’re first learning something, you don’t have it. But after you’ve been in a system long enough, you should have seen it enough times that you can anticipate things. I always talk about seeing things in your mind before it actually materializes. By the way the coverage is unfolding, you know what should be opening up and throwing it there on time even before your guy makes his break. He’s not there yet.”
Billick: “That’s not necessarily his fault. It’s what’s being called and the way they want to play it. So it’s two different conversations: Is he operating within the offense and can they win that way vs. is he going to be a legitimate, elite, upper-echelon quarterback?”
Wood: “He can do everything you want from a quarterback. He throws from the pocket. He can escape from the pocket and make plays with his legs and his arm outside the pocket. It’s not necessarily him being a run-only quarterback — he can beat you from the pocket.”
Brunell: “To have a young quarterback who can get out and make plays, it can drive a coach mad but it can also be the best thing for your offense at times.”
Billick: “From what I’ve seen from a skill-set standpoint, absolutely he can do that. He just has to do it. It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. He needs his 10,000 throws. The best thing for Tyrod Taylor — and it wouldn’t be best for the team necessarily — is to spend the year doing nothing but throwing the ball during the season to where he’s a 550-600-throw guy. I don’t know how many games you’d win but that’d certainly put him on that next tier of, ‘OK, can we evaluate this guy?’”
Gilbride: “He has a chance but I think it remains to be proven that he can be The Guy. A lot of times those problems are solved with your feet. But eventually you have to solve them with your brain and it didn’t seem to me that he solved them that quickly.”
Gannon: “I’d have a lot of projects for him in the offseason. I’d have a third-down project. I’d want him to study the best red-zone teams in football last year. I’ll have him look at Aaron Rodgers. I’ll have him look at Tom Brady in the gun and how quick he gets rid of the ball. I’m going to look at Russell Wilson or Drew Brees, guys who aren’t the biggest guys but are very functional from the pocket. What separates a lot of teams at that position is the time between February and June. That’s where Tyrod has to really get better.”
The greats take charge. They lead, inspire, have a Midas touch on the 52 players around them. Taylor, a new kid on the block, was more introverted behind the scenes early but gradually spoke up more and more. Before paying up, the Bills must know if they have a true leader at the position.
If they have a player who will now elevate his game between February and June as Gannon notes. If he’ll work.
Wood saw him daily. Gannon has met with Taylor. Moon checks in regularly from afar.
Wood: “It was tough for him initially to take charge because we had three quarterbacks who were all prepping to be the starter. So he wasn’t going to step on people’s shoes and talk outlandishly. But as the season went on, he took more and more of a leadership role in meetings with the O-line, leading different meetings with the receivers. Without being extremely talkative in a social setting or an interview, he can definitely take charge of a room.”
Gannon: “I think he has it in him. If you look around the league — like the guy in Miami for example (Ryan Tannehill) — they had some problems. He’s one of these quiet guys. He wants to lead by example. He doesn’t want to be one of those guys who gets up in front of a group of peers and criticizes anybody, challenges anybody or calls anybody out. He doesn’t want to be that guy. Whereas Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, they have no problem doing it. It’s who they are. And in my opinion, it’s a requirement at this level. If you can’t do that at this level, you won’t last very long.”
Wood: “He’s not a nonsense chatter guy. When he says something he means it. And guys take that to heart.”
Gannon: “I think he’s an ultra-competitive guy. I think it’s important to him. Part of it is you’re not just going flash onto the scene and be somebody you’re not. And the other thing is you have to earn the respect and trust of your teammates. That takes some time. But when you start for one year and come back — I’ll give you a great example. Andy Dalton. … Hue Jackson pulled him aside this offseason and had a real heart to heart with him that ‘If you don’t change, we’re never going to get to where we need to go.’ I think you saw a different Andy Dalton this year.”
Brunell: “You always base your decision off of production. That’s No. 1. But I think a close No. 2 is something that’s hard for outsiders to measure and that’s what is he like in the building? What’s he like in the locker room?”
Wood: “He’s a ridiculous worker. He works out every single day in the morning, a lot of times before most people get to the facility. And he works hard at night. He studies a majority of the night from what he tells me. I know it because one, he’s never on social media during the season, during the week. I think he gives himself like Monday to do that. And then one time he told me, ‘I haven’t even turned on a TV in a week or so.’ So this guy’s all in.”
Moon: “I think you’ll see more of his leadership come out now that he’s been there a while. The team understands what he’s capable of doing. It’s hard to be a leader before you’re comfortable in what you’re doing. When you’ve had success on the field, you can start exerting yourself more. And I think you’ll see more of that out of him as well.”
Wood: “I think he works out at 6 and then hits the meeting rooms. … I was cracking up because something happened on Instagram and all the guys were talking about it. I said, ‘Ty, did you see that?’ And he said, ‘No, I only do Instagram on Mondays.’”
Caretaker or playmaker?
Everyone loves Taylor’s decision-making. Whereas many first-year starters are turnover machines, Taylor was efficient. But is “efficient” enough to win in 2015? In all eight of Buffalo’s wins this season, Taylor threw less than 30 passes. When forced to throw deep into the second half, Taylor usually came up short.
Into January — when the quarterback cream rises to the top as it did again this season — that can become a problem.
Gilbride: “He’s quick as anything. As you’ve seen throughout history in this league, that works for a while but it never seems to last. So you have to become a passer to play the quarterback position. And if you can run to extend plays, and you do that periodically, that’s a great asset that a Russell Wilson has or an Aaron Rodgers has. But when they’re throwing on time, they’re processing things fast enough to do just that. That’s what he has to prove to me.”
Billick: “I like what I see in Tyrod Taylor. I just have to see more. Give me a handful of 40-plus throw games where you have to fold the game plan up, put it in your back pocket and go win it for us. Otherwise, you’re going to be on that path like Rex had in New York with Mark Sanchez, the tight pitch count, ‘We’re going to play great defense and not turn the ball over,’ and we’ll win a championship that way. Well, you’re not. You have to have a quarterback.”
Wood: “I think he will grow as a passer in Year Two, there’s no question. And a lot of that will come from having a full offseason with his receivers. He practically had a third of an offseason with his guys last year and that was the first time he ever met them.”
Moon: “Sammy Watkins was in and out of the line-up a bunch and so was Shady McCoy. He didn’t get a chance to get that chemistry you want with all of your players because they were in and out of the line-up — and you’re a new quarterback in the system.”
Brunell: “I think patience in the pocket, going through his reads, just being more and more comfortable within the framework of that pocket will serve him well. Just understanding where your guys are and going through your progressions. That’s where you have most of your success. You cannot make a living just running around.”
Billick: “He’s got a good completion percentage. He showed he can stay away from the mistake. OK, great. But you can’t win a championship simply staying away from the mistake. … In Minneapolis, they’re asking the same thing: ‘Is Teddy Bridgewater The Guy?’ The one qualifier for them is that the kid is pretty good but they’ve got to get some skill-position players around him to really judge to see if he can be that guy before you really say he can or cannot do it. Tyrod doesn’t have that. He has some assets around him.”
Gannon: “I look at quarterbacks in three groups. You’ve got the top 10 guys and a subdivision in that. … I think Tyrod is probably in that middle group. Where is he at in the middle group? Probably down toward the bottom. Let’s be honest: we haven’t seen enough of his body of work. There’s encouraging signs to suggest he could be trending. Is he going to be a perennial Pro Bowler? I don’t know.”
Billick: "It’s a quarterback-driven league. All of the rules are bent that way. The idea that ‘defense wins championship’ is kind of a myth in today’s game."
Buffalo is prepared to let Taylor enter a contract year. His price tag could fall or it could skyrocket. And if it skyrockets in this era of quarterbacks league-wide costing a fortune, Whaley faces a decision that could ultimately determine his own fate as GM.
Is Taylor the franchise quarterback? Whaley bites his tongue on the subject for now.
Into 2016, the pressure is all on Taylor to deliver. And he could, in turn, put all the pressure on the Bills.
Moon: “I think he is. He’s only going to get better as he spends more time with those guys. It doesn’t happen overnight when you go to a new football team.”
Gilbride: “If you’re not sure, I certainly wouldn’t do it.”
Wood: “He definitely did enough this year to earn him at least another season. Obviously management hasn’t given him a new deal yet. So I guess they haven’t crowned him the long-term answer. But in my opinion, unless you’re going to get the No. 1 pick or something, this is a guy who can win you football games and he’s only scratched the surface.”
Gannon: “That’s the problem with our league now: There’s such a shortage at that position. There’s a supply and demand issue right now. It goes back to what the Bills did with Ryan Fitzpatrick. They paid him crazy money because he put together a string of good games and they had nobody else. You’re better off saying, ‘We think you’re our guy and here’s what we think is a fair price for you to be here.’ And if he says, ‘I’m not going to do that, I’m going to go somewhere else,’ then you say, ‘Then go somewhere else.’ It’s one thing if you let Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger or Joe Flacco walk out the door. You know what I mean? It’s another thing if you let one of these other tiered guys go.”
Gannon: “The Dolphins overpaid for Suh and committed crazy money to Ryan Tannehill, who has a losing record as a starting quarterback. Is that good business? Or do you do that because you drafted him, you’re married to him and you have no better alternative right now? That’s a bad way to do business.”
Brunell: “I would. I would go forward with him. Yes. He’s shown me enough. Listen, there’s not a lot of real good young quarterbacks out there. But he’s one of them. Now, if he stayed the same for the next three, four years, you know, that’d be frustrating. But if I knew the kid and I knew he had the potential to get better, I’d stick with him.”
Moon: “He’s off to a great start. I think he’s someone they can build around.”
Wood: “I’d like to work with a guy for years and years and get a guy settled. I’m real big on continuity and I’ve heard our management talk about it, too. I’m excited to work with him again this year.”
Gannon: “If you want to play here, here’s how it’s going to have to happen. And if it doesn’t work, well, there’s the door. I’ll be honest with you: Guys like Tyrod, he’s better off staying in Buffalo for whatever they’re willing to pay him rather than go somewhere else. They have the effort and energy invested in the guy and he has a chance to start. Whereas if he takes a few dollars more — and it’s not going to be a whole lot more — and goes somewhere else, he has to start over again. ... And by the way, the teams looking for quarterbacks aren’t any good anyway!"
Billick: “I think he’s heading in that direction and you like what you see. Am I willing to put $100 million on it yet? Ehhh, not just yet.”
Gannon: “Would I like to play with LeSean McCoy? Would I like to play with Charles Clay? Would I like to play with Sammy Watkins? Are you kidding me? I want to stay where they want me. Sometimes less money helps you become a terrific player and then you go to the pay window as a healthy, productive, consistent performer and a guy who might have a terrific career for 6-8 years in a place. Whereas if you just run for the money, you’ll be on a corner in two years.”
Wood: “I think he’ll take it and run with it. He’s so poised that I don’t think it’ll mess with him by any means. The pressure doesn’t seem to get to him in big moments. I think he’ll take the challenge.”